The "Every Island" adventure: Thailand has more than 300 islands; 100 of which are accessible to humans (read: they’ve been inhabited and developed to varying degrees). That’s over 2,000 miles of tropical coastline, guys. I’ve set a realistic goal of visiting all 100 of those which are accessible. And some of the inaccessible ones. (Just kidding, Mom and Dad. You know I respect boundaries.)
The mattress is about two inches thick, and the only other component of my bungalow on Koh Chang's Lonely Beach is the mosquito net surrounding the mat. There's a pillow and a sheet and I really should have all I need because there's a hammock hanging outside on the balcony.
It's 2009 and I'm staying at a bungalow complex on Thailand's second largest island. Here, the toilet is a shared hole in the floor. The shower is a plastic bucket of water that sits by the hole in the floor. A plastic bowl bobs in it. That's your showerhead. I was teaching English in Ayutthaya with a group of others all paying to volunteer, and this is what we agreed to afford.
Five years later, I'm back on Koh Chang. But the inch-thick mattress was replaced with white Egyptian cotton sheets and a welcome platter of artfully cut fruit, an outdoor shower sort of experience, and what to me was the ultimate luxury then: air conditioning. That weekend, I was with friends who prefer a different kind of accommodation than what I stayed during my first rodeo in Thailand. More of a luxury resort where you felt like a sultan holding cocktails with more accessories and garnishments than you usually ever wear.
Today, Thailand is great for all of the ways you can travel it. And because it's doing well -- it's considered a "great development success story," according to the World Bank. According to the World Bank Forum, Thailand has moved from an low-income country to an upper-income country in less than a generation. Over the last 40 years, it's made remarkable progress in social and economic development. The people seem to be doing well, too. The percentage of people below the national poverty line was 13.15% in 2011, down from 65.26 percent in 1988. Unemployment is under 15%. And everyone, seemingly regardless of circumstance, is still smiling.
When tourism powers at least a third of the country's economy, you feel perhaps better about all of the places for backpackers and retirees and Russian families and the college grads/gap years exploring Southeast Asia and those sleeping resorting in beds like bowls of whip cream.
It's great to try everything. It will humble you; it will expose you to extravagance, it will teach you gratitude. To be privileged enough to have been exposed to both extremes - that alone is wondrous.
Both of those first experiences on Koh Chang were wondrous, left me crisply sunburnt, smiling, drunk with pruned fingers. Totally different experiences, neither of which is better than the other. I appreciate the times I've roughed it in $7 accommodations while traveling because I like to think I'm getting older now.
The Chill Resort offers rooms with your own personal pool, open terrace shower, and beachside fine dining. May I suggest their assortment of coffees, green curry, and dinner breadsticks.
I stayed with friends I met who then lived in Thailand: a blunt, bickering couple, her from Trinidad and him from England. They became family when they introduced me to Yorkshire pudding at one of Chrissy's dinners and nights out in Nana and Silom. We went swimming late night in the infinity pool as it’s open until you leave, because the staff -- a mix of beautiful Cambodians and Swedes -- won’t kick you out. So we rarely left that resort and my deepest, darkest backpacker-couchsurfing self will tell you I never wanted to. We were always content; our belly’s always full, lounging in poolside beds.
In Koh Chang in 2009, I was teaching English in Ayutthaya with a group of others all paying to volunteer. It was the first time I saw and felt the type of water that has forever etched itself into my memory, and it’s partially what brought me back here. I was waist-high in it. I saw each distinct speckle of sand at my feet. It's like the water didn't even exist; it was so clear you were just floating through some kind of gravity-resistant fluid piece of space. From a distance, a cerulean turquoise. Up close, crystal clear. Always beautiful. I was enclosed in this delicious salty Gulf, forgetting about every other murky body of water I had ever experienced. That water stood out to me -- I think I floated around in it forever. It's one of those few times you feel your mind truly shuts off. Thoughts don’t pass through your consciousness because the present itself is too awesomely distracting. The worries and to-do’s that ruin moments weren't there. You just feel sensations and happiness in that moment. You really don’t think anything. That, I think, is nirvana.
We went kayaking and paddled through a torrential rainfall. When it really poured, we found the next closest piece of land, an uninhabited dot in the sea. We pulled our kayaks to the undeveloped island's shore and waited for the storm to pass. The raindrops were powerful. It felt like hail. But on a glorious beach next to that warm body of water, hail felt like a hug.
We watched lightning hit water; we bemoaned our sore biceps from paddling (upper body strength is underrated). The storm eventually calmed, and we made our way back.
I have not been back to Koh Chang since 2014. I'm probably due. And I'll probably look into staying at both of the places I did then, because Thailand nostalgia will always sink deep -- mark my words.
Why do we keep coming back to a place? Why do we deny change when it doesn't look like it did? Our understanding of place is most firmly rooted in memory, and that tints every next visit. Can we teach ourselves to appreciate this change?
Until next time Koh Chang.
[caption id="attachment_184" align="aligncenter" width="640"] That water.[/caption]
See my other "Every Island" adventures:
Ko Samet: The Weekend Island